What are the Most Common Shampoo Ingredients?

Jillian Peterson

Common shampoo ingredients include special detergents that trap the dirt on hair without stripping away natural oils. Other ingredients may include acids, lather builders, thickeners, conditioners, and fragrances. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that shampoo manufacturers accurately list the ingredients on the bottle. In listing ingredients, manufacturers usually use the chemical names for many of these shampoo ingredients.

Allantoin, which is often included in shampoo.
Allantoin, which is often included in shampoo.

Soaps and compounds that trap dirt are commonly called detergents or surfactants. The chemical name for the detergent usually used in shampoo is ammonium lauryl sulfate. Some shampoos contain a similar compound called sodium lauryl sulfate. These detergents bond to the oils in your hair and allow them to be washed away in the water.

Some shampoos contain ingredients to treat dandruff.
Some shampoos contain ingredients to treat dandruff.

Many detergents are alkaline or base compounds, which can make the hair look dull. Therefore, many shampoo manufacturers include acids that help keep hair looking shiny. The most commonly used acids in shampoo include ascorbic acid and citric acid. A form of ascorbic acid is Vitamin C, and citric acid is the natural acid found in such fruits as lemons and oranges.

Ascorbic acid and citric acid help keep hair looking shiny.
Ascorbic acid and citric acid help keep hair looking shiny.

While acids help keep the hair shiny, shampoo also needs to lather to better clean the hair. The lather builders traditionally included in shampoo ingredients are called cocamide mea or cocamidopropyl betaine. These chemical compounds help create the suds, which make the detergents work better by allowing more dirt to be lifted from the hair and washed away.

Shampoo ingredients might be designed to help treat scalp issues.
Shampoo ingredients might be designed to help treat scalp issues.

In addition to lather builders, most shampoos contain ingredients that make the product thick. Thickening ingredients help keep the shampoo at the right consistency, ensuring a product that is thick and creamy. The chemical names for thickeners include xanthan gum, cetyl alcohol, sodium chloride, and stearyl alcohol. Many of these chemical compounds also act as conditioning agents on the hair. Conditioners help make the hair shafts softer, smoother, thicker, and stronger. Other conditioners that many shampoo manufacturers add are allantoin, glycerin, and glycerin. Shampoo for dry hair or damaged hair might have more of these conditioning ingredients.

Sodium laurel sulfates are often added to shampoos to create lather.
Sodium laurel sulfates are often added to shampoos to create lather.

Typically companies add other shampoo ingredients to encourage customers to buy their hair products. Specialty shampoos, such as baby shampoo, curling shampoo, dandruff shampoo, and other types of shampoos contain additional additives. Many shampoos advertise ultraviolet light protection, proteins, vitamins, plant extracts, and other organic ingredients. The most common sunscreen used in shampoos is octyl salicylate, and some use PABA, a compound found in sunscreen lotions.

Many shampoos advertise ultraviolet light protection, proteins, vitamins, plant extracts, and other organic ingredients.
Many shampoos advertise ultraviolet light protection, proteins, vitamins, plant extracts, and other organic ingredients.
Ingredients used in baby shampoo are typically less harsh than those used in shampoo formulated for adults.
Ingredients used in baby shampoo are typically less harsh than those used in shampoo formulated for adults.

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Discussion Comments


I actually use Shielo's hydrate line of shampoos (which are sulfate free) to wash my hair. It doesn't have any of those harmful ingredients. I used to have the worst hair, and now I always get complements when using the Shielo shampoo. It's worth the price.


I colored my hair dark brown a few years ago, and I starting using a shampoo formulated for colored hair. It was supposed to protect the color and keep it from fading as quickly.

One way that it accomplished this was by using sunscreen. The sun can quickly fade darker colors out of hair, and the shampoo was supposed to prevent this.

I believe that it helped. My color stayed vibrant longer than my friend's color, and she just used a regular shampoo. At first, I was skeptical, but after seeing the difference between our hair color that had started out the same shade, I had more faith in it.


I had always wondered what xanthan gum was! I'm glad to know that it is just something to thicken up my shampoo.

It's really weird to see “gum” in the list of ingredients on a shampoo bottle. You would expect it to be really sticky!

Having said that, I do prefer creamy, thick shampoos to runny, liquid ones. I have used one kind that looked and felt too much like liquid soap.

I think that thick shampoos allow us to use less product than fluid ones. A little goes a long way, because it spreads out more willingly, sort of like the way that you can stretch a piece of gum between your fingers.


@Perdido – I think that people probably fear sodium lauryl sulfate because it is present in other types of strong cleaners. My husband cleans the floors in the carport with a cleaner containing this ingredient.

However, what people don't take into account is that the amount of sodium lauryl sulfate in strong cleaners is way higher than the amount in shampoo. So, it's not like we are scrubbing our hair with an abrasive substance that could take stains off of concrete.

I personally don't believe that it could cause cancer. I think that the small amount in shampoo could do no harm.


Has anyone here ever heard that sodium lauryl sulfate in shampoo can cause cancer? I have been hearing for awhile now that it is a dangerous ingredient and that it is too harsh of a cleaner to be used on our hair.

Sadly, all of my favorite shampoo brands contain this ingredient. I have found a couple of brands that don't use it, but I don't like them as much as my usual shampoos.

I certainly don't want to be using something that could give me cancer. However, I don't want to stop using it based on hearsay. Does anyone here know anything else about this?


@fify-- I don't think that shampoos are that dangerous for health. I'm sure those reports are a little exaggerated.

I think most shampoos are formulated really well and with concern, however, there are some ingredients that don't have to be in there. Thickeners for example don't really do anything in terms of cleaning hair. Consumers just like thicker products and that's why they're in there but there is no need for it.

Some shampoos also have way too much perfume in them. Sometimes I feel like I'm pouring perfume on my hair rather than washing it. That's not necessary either. But all the other ingredients are necessary and helps clean hair and I'm not against it.


@myharley-- I also believe that a lot of the ingredients in our shampoos are dangerous. I read sometime back mixed reports about lather building ingredients. Also, all shampoos are now added parabens to make their shelf life longer. Some scientists say that parabens are carcinogens and can cause cancer.

Glycerin is another ingredient that gets added with claims that it moisturizers. There is no way for that because glycerin makes a filmy cover on hair strands preventing anything from going in and out. It doesn't absorb into the hair and so it can't hydrate it. Plus, glycerin is a petroleum by-product.

I think natural and organics shampoos have safer ingredients and are better for our hair. If you can accept the fact that it's not going to lather well and create a lot of foam on your head, you should use them instead.


I love this article! It has answered all of my questions about shampoo ingredients. For the longest time, I've been staring at the ingredients list on my shampoo completely dumbfounded.

The technical names of these ingredients sound so foreign and scary. I had started to think that I have been putting weird chemicals on my hair. Now that I know what they are, I feel much safer!

I have really oily hair so shampoos with strong detergents actually work really well for me. I can never use natural shampoos with ingredients like olive oil or other types of oils. They don't clean my hair enough and it becomes oily much too quickly.


I have been looking at some of the organic shampoos that are available. This is something I don't know much about, but think there can be some harmful shampoo ingredients in many of the products on the shelves.

Has anyone had good results using an organic shampoo? I don't even know what the major differences would be in the ingredients, but would like to find something that is more natural.

In the past when I have tried natural products, I don't always get the results I was hoping for. I am wondering if this might be the same with a shampoo, or if there are some good ones out there that work well too.


I wonder what the difference is between the ingredients in a clarifying shampoo and baby shampoo ingredients?

I like to use a clarifying shampoo on my hair at least once a week to get rid of any product or shampoo build up. There is some ingredient in this shampoo that makes my hair feel different than my regular shampoo.

The shampoo I use most of the time is a floral smelling herbal shampoo. I usually always read the part of the bottle that tells how the shampoo is supposed to work and make your hair feel. When I have looked at the list of ingredients on the bottle, I didn't know what most of them were and didn't even know how to pronounce a lot of them.

I also bought baby shampoo when my kids were young. This was supposed to be gentle for them, not cause any tears if it got in their eyes, and I just loved the smell of it!


I like to use shampoos that really lather and produce a lot of suds. It just feels like my hair gets cleaner when there is more lather.

Fragrance is another thing that makes a difference for me. If I don't like how it smells, I don't like to use it.

I also like a shampoo that has a lingering fragrance. I want my hair to smell good all day long and not just the few minutes I am washing it in the shower.

I have never paid too much attention to the shampoo and conditioner ingredients on the back of the bottle. As long as it works the way I want it to, I will keep buying it.

I like to use different shampoos on my hair all the time. When I am looking for a new one, the first thing I consider is what it smells like.


I have used a lot of different shampoos and conditioners and like to use one that has both of them in one product.

This way I have one less bottle sitting around and it is just easier to do it all at once. I think that the major shampoo and conditioner ingredients are mostly the same no matter where you buy your shampoo from.

I have used expensive shampoos that I bought from a salon, and have used shampoos that I bought at a retail store. For myself, I have not found the expensive brands to work any better than the cheaper ones.

The active Suave shampoo ingredients don't look much different than the more expensive brands. When you have a large family, this can end up saving you quite a bit of money.

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